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The French Invasion of Wales

February 22, 2018

 

It was early in the morning and the frost was thick on the ground. The horseman frantically drove his animal on. He was frightened of slipping on the ice but there was no choice. He had to get to the big house with the fearful news quickly. The French had landed. Napoleon’s invasion of Britain had begun.

The squire was at breakfast when the messenger burst in. He listened to the garbled story. Thousands of French soldiers had landed at Carregwastad Point. Right now they were unloading cannon and powder. It was the Black Legion, the most feared of Bonaparte’s troops, battle hardened conquerors of

Europe and they were here in Pembrokeshire.

 

The squire summoned his son, Colonel Knox the commander of the local volunteer militia. They considered the problem. What could a few farmers and tradesmen armed with blunderbusses and farm implements do against such a fearsome and powerful enemy? The squire was cautious and counselled patience.

“Let the regular army deal with the French.” he suggested.

His son, who had no military experience, was more reckless.

“I’m not afraid of a few Frenchies. We can soon give them a bloody nose,” he boasted.

The headstrong Knox persuaded his father that the time for action was now. This was the opportunity for glory and to show that stout men were afraid of no one. Messengers were sent to rally the volunteers.

“Come quickly and bring any weapons you have.”

 

They met at the fort in Fishguard and assembled into ranks. The squire’s son, now a Lieutenant Colonel of the Fishguard and Newport Volunteer Infantry, sat on his horse and looked proudly at his command. Boys and men, they totalled 250. Some armed with muskets, others with pitchforks and most with clubs, hurriedly cut from the hedges. The orders were given and the heroic band marched out of the town, towards Goodwick and the enemy.

 

By now French troops had established a base at Llanwnda, a short distance from where they had landed. Provisions and munitions were still being brought ashore and cannons were being remounted on their carriages after being manhandled from the ships. It was a hive of activity. They were professional soldiers and every man knew his duty. The French fleet sat anchored off the point as small boats went back and forth with supplies.

 

News had spread quickly that the French had landed and there was going to be a battle. As the Squire’s son led his men, a crowd gathered and started to follow them. Women left their kitchens, pensioners their rocking chairs and children their lessons. Soon the little band of reluctant heroes was being followed by hundreds of supporters. All wanted to see the excitement and be there to cheer when the French got a hiding.

 

Unsure where the French were, Knox marched his men along the coast path. The sailors aboard the French ships saw the advancing men and looked up in horror. There on the cliff stretching from Penfathach to Aber Felin was a long line of red coat soldiers. It looked like the entire British Army had arrived and was ready to do battle. They dispatched a picket boat with a hurried warning to the soldiers at Llanwnda, cut their anchor cables and set sail for France.

 

Colonel Knox looked back at his men as they trudged along the cliff. He saw the long line of women in their red cloaks and old men following behind and, having seen the size of the French fleet, finally realised how hopeless his position was. Besides, he did not want the blood of innocent women and old men on his hands. His father was right. This was a job for regular soldiers. He wheeled his horse and the relieved volunteers marched back to Fishguard.

 

The invasion plan was to ferment rebellion before the Redcoats arrived and let the Welsh fight the English. When the French commander received the news that a large force of British Redcoats had cut off his retreat and that his fleet had fled, he panicked. He sent his chief of staff to Fishguard under a flag of truce and offered to surrender.

 

The surrender took place the next day and it was only then that the French learned that there were no Redcoats. Their invasion had failed because of an army of Welsh women dressed to keep warm on that cold February day. Thus ends the legend of the last invasion of Britain.

The real reason for the French surrender is unclear but the events leading up to the surrender and the people involved well documented.

 

Colonel William Tate an Irish-American soldier of fortune led the invading force. He had fought the British during the American war of Independence and had escaped to Paris after being involved in a failed revolution in New Orleans. He hated the British and was given command of the force that was to invade Britain and incite rebellion in order to take over the country.

 

The French navy provided four of their largest and most modern warships including the frigates Vengeance and Resistance for the project. The force Tate commanded included 600 regular soldiers from Napoleon’s Italian army, some of whom were grenadiers together with an assortment of 800 convicts, royalists and pressed men. Altogether he had 1400 soldiers and they were well equipped with modern weapons. The uniforms they wore were captured British army clothing that had been dyed black - hence the name ‘The Black Legion’.

 

The invading fleet sailed flying the red ensign and headed for England. Tate’s original plan was to attack Bristol and let his men plunder and rape at will but could not navigate the strong tides in the Severn Estuary and retreated. They then attacked shipping and lost the element of surprise. The British posted lookouts and, on the 22nd February 1797, Thomas Williams, a retired seafarer, spotted the French fleet sailing near Strumble Head and raised the alarm.

 

The frigate Resistance sailed into Fishguard harbour and was fired upon by a 9lb cannon in the fort whereupon she withdrew, unaware that the fort only had 3 round of shot in its magazine. The French Fleet anchored at Carregwastad Point and disembarked men and arms including 40 barrels of gunpowder and several thousand rifles. At least one boat capsized and all the invaders’ 4-pound cannons were lost. Having unloaded, the French fleet withdrew.

 

Colonel Knox, commander of the local militia was returning from a social engagement at Tregwynt Mansion and was riding across Goodwick sands when he met a junior officer leading some locals, intent of attacking the French. He stopped the men and ordered them back to Fishguard. His order almost certainly saved their lives, since the French had set up well-prepared ambush points in strong defensive positions.

 

Knox decided to evacuate his forces from Fishguard to Haverford West but was met on route by Lord Cawdor with reinforcements including the Pembroke Yeomanry. Cawdor, with military experience, took command and they returned to Fishguard.

 

At the same time French discipline was deteriorating. The pressed men were deserting and stealing food from the local farms. A Portuguese merchantman had recently floundered and its cargo of wine was looted and drunk. Several violent incidents took place where French soldiers and locals were killed. Llanwnda church was desecrated and the mutinous soldiers lit fires in it to keep warm, using the bible as kindling and pews as firewood.

 

Cawdor arrived in Fishguard late in the afternoon and elected to wait until the next day before attacking. News of Cawdor’s advance reached Tate. Aware of the collapse of his army as a fighting force and the lack of any possible retreat he decided to surrender. Two French officers were sent to Fishguard under a flag of truce to negotiate terms. Lord Cawdor received them in the Royal Oak public house where he had set up his headquarters. Despite being heavily outnumbered he refused to negotiate and sent them back to Tate with an ultimatum. He demanded that the French surrender unconditionally or he would attack and destroy them the following morning. The Irish American Tate prevaricated and it was only when Cawdor’s men were drawn up in battle order on the beach at Goodwick that the French capitulated. They marched into captivity with drums beating and the formal surrender document, now lost, was signed at the Royal Oak.

 

In 1798 Tate and his men were repatriated to France as part of a prisoner exchange. After the invasion, a subscription of £25 was made to replace the pews in Llanwnda Church and, in 1853, the Pembroke Yeomanry were awarded a battle honour for the ‘Battle of Fishguard’. It is the only battle honour ever awarded to a British Army Regiment for an engagement on British soil. The French ship Resistance was captured, refitted and commissioned into the British Navy as HMS Fishguard. Her sister ship, the Vengeance, returned safely to France. 

 

The colour of the shawls worn by Welsh women was achieved using a dye called crottal made from lichen. Crottal was also used to dye the red tunics of the British army. The women also wore tall black hats that might be mistaken for helmets so, from a distance, they would have looked like soldiers. One woman who did create fear amongst the French was Jemima Nicholas, a 47-year-old cobbler from Fishguard known to all as Jemima Fawr (Big Jemima). She took it upon herself to take a pitchfork, rounded up 12 French deserters and locked them in St. Mary’s Church. With her help and the boldness of the Welsh people the last invasion of Britain ended.

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